Miami Marlins

Marcell Ozuna fits like a glove in Miami Marlins’ talented outfield

Miami Marlins center fielder Marcell Ozuna dives and catches a ball hit by the St. Louis Cardinals’ Thomas Pham during the fifth inning of a spring training game Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla.
Miami Marlins center fielder Marcell Ozuna dives and catches a ball hit by the St. Louis Cardinals’ Thomas Pham during the fifth inning of a spring training game Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla. AP

He’s got a future Hall of Famer backing him up, a 23-year-old former first-round pick and Gold Glove winner playing next to him in left field, and a 25-year-old, $325 million MVP candidate over in right.

If the Marlins outfield were a rock band, there’s little doubt center fielder Marcell Ozuna would not be the front man. But he’s no scrub either.

Last season, Ozuna became only the 55th player in baseball history to hit at least 23 homers and drive in 85 runs in either their first or second season and prior to turning 24. The only other Marlins on that list: Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton. The rest of the names include a who’s who of All-Stars and Hall of Famers.

“Kind of reminds me of Andruw Jones,” manager Mike Redmond said last week of how easily Ozuna floats to balls in center despite his non-prototypical 6-1, 230-pound frame. “He’s been great. He had a great year last year, is hitting for power and playing great defense. Hopefully that will continue.”

The way Ozuna plays the game — with a big grin on his face — might be the quality that best rubs off on his teammates, outfield coach Brett Butler said.

“He’s a little boy in a man’s body,” Butler said. “He reminds me of [Raul] Mondesi when I was in L.A. Mondesi was 11. He was like, ‘Bugsy, where do I play? I just want to play and hit.’ Ozo’s like that.

“He’s got that infectious, Magic Johnson smile and he truly loves to play baseball like a little kid. Some guys come out, play and go about their business. He’s just rambunctious. He’s like Marmaduke, a big dog you just want to hug because he brings a lot of joy to the field.”

Ozuna, who turned 24 on Nov.12, has had a little extra pep in his step this spring. Blame Ichiro Suzuki for that.

The aforementioned 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, who speaks three languages, has been teaching Ozuna how to speak Japanese since he arrived in camp three weeks ago. Left fielder Christian Yelich said he’s been getting a kick out of the back and forth between Ozuna and Ichiro.

“He’s a great new teammate,” Ozuna said of Ichiro. “I’m thankful to have him for this year. He’s had a great career, and I know I’m going learn more and more from him as the year goes on.”

Ozuna, who has had a penchant for getting hurt hustling on the job his first two seasons in the big leagues (he tore ligaments in his left thumb making a diving catch in 2013 and sprained his right ankle trying to stretch a hit into a double last season), still has a lot of room to learn and grow, according to Redmond.

Having more patience (and fewer strikeouts) at the plate is at the top of the list. He struck out 164 times last season (seventh-most in the National League).

Learning where to position himself and read swing patterns is what Ozuna’s defensive focus has been this spring, Butler said.

“He really looks more groomed to be a left fielder or right fielder especially with his arm, but that sucker has tremendous instincts and jumps,” Butler said.

“Now, he’s beginning to have an understanding on where to play guys whereas in the past he wasn’t really sure playing the pull side or opposite side. Again, even with his broken English, he’s taking leadership, moving guys, telling them ‘I’m moving here; move with me.’ He continues to grow. He’s just getting better.”

Ozuna and Angels star Mike Trout (6-2, 230) are the two-heaviest starting center fielders in baseball. Yet, both are among the best defensive outfielders in the game.

According to Baseball Info Solutions, which measures defensive metrics, Ozuna ranked tied for ninth among all center fielders (fourth in the National League) in runs saved. His eight assists tied him for sixth among all center fielders.

Among all outfielders – regardless of position – Ozuna ranked 15th in baseball with 11 defensive runs saved (tied with Yoenis Cespedes) last season. Yelich, who won his first Gold Glove, was right behind Ozuna with 10. Stanton had seven, tied for 28th among outfielders.

As an outfield, the Marlins led the National League and ranked third overall in defensive runs saved (31) last season. In total defensive contribution, which measures range, the Marlins ranked third also behind only the Braves and Royals.

“Let’s face it, all of three of them can win a Gold Glove,” Butler said. “He might not be as flashy as the rest, but I’d be a son of a gun if Ozo doesn’t get to balls. We’ve got a very special three out there.”

Scheduled to make $540,000 in 2015, Ozuna is a bargain for the Marlins. But he’ll become arbitration eligible starting next season. The club holds his rights until 2020, around the time a new TV contract is expected to be reached.

After a slow start this spring (he was 1-for-12), Ozuna has driven in four runs and collected five hits in his past 13 at-bats and four games. The Marlins, off on Monday, resume Grapefruit League action with a pair of split-squad games Tuesday against the Cardinals in Jupiter and Mets in Port St. Lucie.

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